Design Policy as Mission Impossible
Guest Blogger: Ksenija Berk responds to University, Inc.

University, Inc.

Last Wednesday, I attended a lecture entitled, Why Ethnography Matters, Intimate Detail in Political Process, at U of Melbourne by Dr. Michael Hertzfeld of Harvard's Anthropology Dept. The thesis of his talk was how anthropology has an important role to play in salvaging/improving "what the University is intended to be--a place of argument, discussion, exploration, and opening up new possibilities" through its focus on gaining "intimate knowledge." It is the process of gaining this intimate knowledge through a long term and deep understanding of, for example, kinship, local language, and gesture (i.e. ethnography) that the University can be saved from becoming factories.

He started with a description of the modern University. He posited that, under the guise of neo-liberal efficiency, the University's role as a place of "dialogue, discussion, and mediation" is being eroded by systems of (1) simplification, where in the positivist fashion fewer data is considered better data and thus "plurality of fact" is ignored; (2) accounting, where metric based monitoring of performance through the quantity of knowledge outputs mismeasures that you are actually trying to measure: the quality of knowledge, which could be accomplished through one "earth-shattering" paper; and (3) hegemony and representation, by which the University is seeking to gain the power attached to business by pretending it is a business, but it is by nature something else.

In terms of simplication, he tied it to the way politics are done in the media and how faculty promotion evaluation is done in the Academy. In both cases, there is a bias toward the simplifiction of information, which unfortunately leads to a reduction in knowledge. The U.S. Healthcare discussion gets reduced to the simple facts of "reducing customer choice." The promotion of a faculty member gets based on whether he or she has published 10 articles in tier one peer review journals and two books over a period of 6-7 years, regardless of the actual quality of the content. He demonstrated how at Harvard the process is different, or at least was different. They would ask 25 leading experts in the person's field to describe the quality of the person's body of work (i.e. the content), not just the enumeration of stuff done.

I found most immediately useful his discussion of what Marilyn Strathern describes as "audit culture" inside and outside of the Academy. He started with the origins of accounting based on the "confessional" practices of the Catholic Church as described by James Aho's Confession and Bookkeeping. The movement of audit from a term in the financial accounting sector to other professional sectors in the 1980s is addressed in Strathern's edited volume. The concept has come to me at a crucial time as I am ramping up on my position as Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching, and therefore am encountering first-hand the artifacts, processes, and outcomes of Swinburne's own audit culture. Each faculty member has to complete a workplan, which is a glorified timesheet. There is then a professional development audit and course evaluations from students. All this auditing does provide greater transparency into the expectations for the University; but it also as Foucault states a "relationship of power between the scrutinzer and observed: the latter are rendered objects of information, never subjects of communication." This makes very clear to me the core of my new role: take these technologies of auditing and make sure they are being used to enable faculty and students to be rich subjects of communication.

In terms of hegemony, Hertzfeld discusses how Universities are racing to become "nationalized centers for closed minds" because they have accepted the discourse of business (which holds the seat of power) without realizing that they function quite differently. For example, business needs the systems of auditing because the profit motive incentivizes dishonesty in relationships. Here he mentioned the Madoff scandal. Although there are examples of academic fraud (for which the academic citation system is the auditing mechanism), the "open secrets" of the University system tend to be less grave. We don't aways teach as well everyday. Our meetings are not always productive. These need to be monitored so that we can offer support for learning and teaching as responsible and accountable educators. But one would have that if one had knowledge about the people in the faculty. This is where the grow, grow, grow model of education (as factory) is a significant problem. He mentioned that while anthropology teaches many popular classes at UMelb, they are "rewarded" with higher student/teacher ratios instead of more faculty positions. They are "rewarded" with having to teach two units of the same course instead of a larger lecture hall to accomodate all the students. There are indications of the same issues in my faculty at Swinburne.

There is one interesting blind spot in Hertzfeld's reading of what is going on the Academy related to the University as Factory model. It is also the "democratization" of the University that has resulted in this phenomenon. Meaning, when Universities were the domain of elite cultures, they were places of discussion, debate, and contemplation among gentlemen scholars who had shaped the University as an extention of the private luxury for the intellectual leisure described in the novels of E.M. Forster. If the modern education system for everyone else (who was not elite) was to prepare/discipline subjects for life in factories, then it makes sense that when Universities began to cater to the non-elite, they probably had both internal/external pressures to transform the culture to become more businesslike. It is the parents of the middle and lower classes that demand that their investment in their children's educations pay off in high status employability. If you are an elite, you already have high status and your family wealth protects you from the necessity of employability. From the perspective of faculty, the elite University culture of contemplation and discussion was "the ole boy network." It was and remains extremely hostile to women and people of color because of the assumptions of sameness and priviledge that is not shared by the transmodern teaching staff. The emancipatory part of the mechanization of the Factory is the fact that these auditing systems have a greater chance at being neutral and thus allowing those outside of the elite group to advance through the system.

So now what do we do? The purposes of the university in terms of places for "dialogue, discussion, and mediation" should not be lost in the conversion of the University to a Factory. The price of dehumanization is too high and if education is about the transmissions of knowledge (i.e. information contextually embedded in individuals, time, and space) across time and space; it is very distinct from an ethos of information transmission. Yet, we do require that the large education systems that exists have a means of monitoring the effectiveness, fairness, justice, as well as humanness of the system. Perhaps as an anthropologist in a role of Associate Dean of teaching and learning, can help develop monitoring systems that are not coercive, but rather springboards to deeper intimacy of knowledge witiin the academy.


ksenija berk

What is to be done?

Well, I think the first step is to recognize what’s going on and discuss all the threads, misconceptions, manipulations and often so swiftly disguised in the system we are often completely unaware of their existence. I share the views Dr. Michael Hertzfeld and the role of contemporary Universities in global societies. I would like to add another “eroding” issue that has not been discussed so much lately, because somehow we all assume it has been erased from our Universities a long time ago that of the “white-male dominancy”. But we could not be more wrong.

Do you really think that the collapse and demise of totalitarian regimes has brought freedom and democracy to the Universities everywhere? This time I want to raise my voice and show irregularities happening in so called “equal” members of European Union, who could not differ more. In several ‘newcomers’ to the EU most of the University professors practically stayed the same (I must be fair to those who have always been bright examples), not to mention the educational programs ( I don’t even want to go there). One can’t expect things can change over the night and the same goes with people, as with the University professors in this particular case. You can’t teach old dogs new tricks! Why do we always assume people can change? Some people can’t change and the others do not want to. Many of them are still practicing the white-male dominancy thing, based on the hierarchical system of power and they see “quota-system” just as an exception to the rule, using it as a convenient shield and excuse, while laughing at the world with fists clenched in their pockets.

What’s really worrying me is when I have realized that many students still do not have any legal chances to complain, protest or change the situation. They are terrified of never finishing their studies if they ever dare to question their masters, for they know what happened to those few courageous ones who have at least tried to make a difference with some actions as critical writing in the media or informing the international community. They have never been expelled as I would expect - no, the masters have rapidly learned all the tricks of the new system - they just never get the chance to defend their already written diploma theses' and get inevitably lost in indescribable complicated bureaucratic procedures.

I think this is the right time to bring some positive change here!


Second thing I’d like to share with you is the new issue of transversal web journal on knowledge production and its discontent.

When knowledge production becomes the raw material of cognitive capitalism, what becomes of the old factories of knowledge, the universities? With the rising importance of knowledge, they move to the eye of the storm, become objects of desire of neoliberal transformations, objects of competition between regions and continents, but also subjects of struggles against these transformations and competitions. Though the university as a privileged site of struggle has – except for a few moments in time – been only a myth, in recent months there seems to be a rising tide of conflicts around it, in different places around the globe.
eipcp - european institute for progressive cultural policies

Katherine Bennett

Very helpful discussion of the issues, Dori. I'm at present re-considering design education (specifically, educating product designers in the area of research) from the ground up. Thanks!

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